When it comes to cities, “What Works” is a question — not an answer

By Josh Skolnick, Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team

My wife and I are expecting our first child in May. We’re inundated right now with advice from friends, parenting books, and product pitches — all sharing their own tips and tricks for handling sleepless nights and cranky newborns.

When I probe more, however, advice-givers admit that they’re just sharing what worked for them. Parents readily admit that their solutions might fall flat when tried with a different child. What I’ve come to appreciate is there’s really no such thing as what to expect when you’re expecting — eventually, my wife and I will have to find it out for ourselves, for our child, and for our situation.

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This learning process echoes the work we do in the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities initiative. We help cities across the United States use data and evidence to get the best possible return on taxpayer investments in anything from snow-removal services to care for the homeless. To do this, our partners have trained thousands of public servants, run dozens of low-cost trials, reformed tens of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts, and helped cities open their data for residents to see. What we and our partners don’t do, despite the name of the initiative, is fly into cities and tell them a single formula or intervention that always “works.”

That’s because, as with raising a child, it’s never that simple. I was reminded of this when the Hewlett Foundation’s Sarah Lucas tweeted recently that she’s “always been mildly troubled by the declarative nature of the ‘what works’ movement (as if there is always a single, timeless, definitive answer).” Citing a widely read report about how governments globally are moving toward more experimental methods of looking for answers, Lucas wondered whether it all might really be about asking “what works” rather than preaching “what works.”

Speaking for What Works Cities, we are big fans of helping cities continually ask what works. When trying to make progress for residents, books and reports are helpful. Talking to others with experience is essential. And there is much to learn from cases where people have seen real breakthroughs. But those are just starting points. What really matters is your city’s own exploration: asking “what works?” — for you. And finding the answer — for you.

[Read: What’s ahead for What Works Cities]

As cities we partner with go down this path, they inevitably find there are more questions just beneath the surface. Here are just a few of the questions that What Works Cities helps cities to ask as they try out new programs and invest the public’s resources:

  • Where will it work? Solutions that are successful in one city, or even in one neighborhood, might not work the same way elsewhere. Think of bikesharing: A useful tool in areas with flat terrain may be less useful in places that are hilly. In other words, context matters. That’s why programs that work in one city almost always need to be modified in some way to work in another. For example, take Providence Talks, an innovative idea from Providence, R.I., to increase childhood learning that came out of our Mayor’s Challenge. It’s showed some genuinely exciting results — so exciting, in fact, that Bloomberg Philanthropies is working over the next year to share the model with other cities. What we’re not doing is telling these cities that they should implement the model in the exact way that Providence implemented it. Instead, we’re encouraging cities to adapt it based on local feedback and conditions, get resident input early and often, and customize it as needed.
  • For whom will it work? What clicks for some of a city’s residents doesn’t always work for all of them. And all too often, the residents who complain the loudest or have the best political connections are the ones whose needs are most fully met. One answer to this problem comes from Tulsa, Okla., which has begun systematically surveying residents on their satisfaction with city services. The sophisticated survey tool allows city leaders to get a nuanced picture of how views vary by neighborhood or by different demographic groups. The goal, according to a recent Gallup report, is to ensure “that everyone in the city has input on local governance.”
  • Finally, which parts work? To really understand what works — or doesn’t — city leaders need to dig deep into their data to understand what stories the numbers tell. That’s what Memphis, Tenn., did recently with its trash removal services. An enterprising city employee analyzed 311 data and surfaced a valuable insight: A single waste hauler serving about one-fifth of the city’s customers was responsible for the vast majority of complaints about trash removal. Upon learning this news, Mayor Jim Strickland acted swiftly to remove and replace the vendor. City leaders didn’t stop there, though. They stepped up regular reviews of each vendor’s performance, to make sure that when it comes to this service, Memphis invests in what’s working and stops investing in what doesn’t.

Cities should always be learning from others’ experience and hard-earned wisdom. But doing “what works” means more than copying and pasting from others’ playbooks. Instead, it means carefully studying and continually monitoring whether a given program, department, service, or vendor is delivering results. Careful evaluation, tinkering, and continuous improvement are the real keys to finding out what works for you.

[Read: 9 Ways cities can use data for results]

How can your city adopt this culture of continuous learning? A good place to start is to complete a What Works Cities Certification assessment. Doing so will give you a good read on your city’s strengths and weaknesses and a view of where your city stands among others. It also gives staff in your city free access to specialized training Sprints and courses offered through the What Works Cities Academy to boost skills around a variety of foundational data practices. There’s no better way to learn what questions your city can ask with data — and to begin your own search for answers.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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